I’m not a lawyer. I’m a mom. More specifically, I’m Amy’s mom. She’s swamped with work, so I’m pinch-hitting. [Thanks, Mom! – ed.]
Like many people I was appalled by Donald Trump’s apparent incitement to violence as part of the speech he gave in Wilmington, N.C. on August 9. On August 10, both the Washington Post and the New York Times led with reports on the implications of this speech, and both papers editorialized about it.
With a hat tip to linguists professor Geoffrey Pullum for the context, here’s what Mr. Trump said:
Hillary wants to abolish
— essentially abolish —
the Second Amendment.
By the way,
if she gets to pick her judges… [long pause]
Nothing you can do, folks. [long pause]
Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.
Many people, myself included, felt that this was a call to assassinate Hillary Clinton. In political speeches, as in stand-up comedy, timing is everything, and Professor Pullum’s insertion of the pauses is important. After Mr. Trump says, “Nothing you can do folks,” he pauses, as if he were thinking about what he had just said. As if he were saying to himself that possibly there is something that can be done [about his ridiculous claim that a president can single-handedly abolish part of the U.S. Constitution]. He then says, “Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is [something you can do], I don’t know.”
The Trump campaign says that interpreting this as incitement to violence is nonsense. He was merely saying that people who value their Second Amendment privileges should be sure to vote in November. But if you watch the video of this passage of the speech (there are dozens on YouTube), you will see someone (red t-shirt or polo shirt) sitting behind and to the left of Mr. Trump whose jaw drops. He can’t believe Trump just said that. If you keep watching, you’ll see that this same guy breaks into a big smile and turns, laughing, to the woman sitting next to him. What’s Mr. Red Shirt thinking? “Wow! Did Trump just give us permission to go out and shoot Hillary?” Or is he thinking, “Yeah, he’s right. We gotta remember to vote on November 8.” As the sportscasters sometimes say, “You make the call.”
The Washington Post editorialized as follows: “If Mr. Trump were not a major-party presidential candidate, his comment Tuesday might have earned him a stern visit from the Secret Service.” The New York Times’s editorial reminds us of the New Hampshire delegate to the Republican Convention, Al Baldasaro, who said that Ms. Clinton should “be put in the firing line and shot for treason.” “That comment,” says the Times,” wound up on the Secret Service’s radar. Mr. Trump’s comment should as well.”
What does the law say about these kinds of remarks? Check out 18 U.S.C. § 879, which says
(a)Whoever knowingly and willfully threatens to kill, kidnap, or inflict bodily harm upon- [(1), (2) and (4) a former President, member of the former President’s immediate family; President, Vice-President, President-elect and immediate families; a person protected by the Secret Service…]
And then there’s subsection (3):
(3) a major candidate for the office of President or Vice President, or a member of the immediate family of such candidate
Ms. Clinton qualifies under three of the four subsections: immediate family of a former president, major candidate for president, and a person under the protection of the Secret Service.
So what’s going to happen to a person who “knowingly and willfully” threatens to kill, etc. someone listed in sections 1 through 4?
Shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 5 years, or both.
Two things are pretty clear to me and to many other people: Donald Trump threatened the life of Hillary Clinton, and such threats are illegal and subject to fines, imprisonment, or both. Two major newspapers have said or implied that Mr. Trump should be at least investigated under 18 U.S.C § 879, but, somehow, I doubt that he will be. I would be investigated if I said that. You would, too. But probably not Donald Trump.